What started off as a race has now become a marathon for Indian fashion, and it looks like the finish line is not too far.
The early 2000s was when Indian fashion believed it was ready to go international. Belief, though, is often not enough.
In the past two decades, the industry has seen many developments. Tarun Tahiliani became the first Indian designer to show at the Milan Fashion Week in 2002. Few seasons later, Rocky S. and Sabyasachi Mukherjee showcased at the same event. Later, Mukherjee went on to be a part of the New York Fashion Week. Ashish Soni followed.
But it was Manish Arora who really made the fashion fraternity believe that an Indian creator was going to become a global fashion name. Arora, who first showcased at the 2005 London fashion week, was part of the Paris fashion week for 10 consecutive years. He became the creative director (though for a few months) of Paco Rabanne. Celebrities like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga were seen in his bold electric creations. His sense of colour was something the West had never seen before. While India has always been known as a place to make beautiful garments because of the exceptional craftsmanship, it was not known for its makers. As much as global fashion houses have revered the Indian design and textile heritage, they have also exploited it. So the success of Indian fashion designers on a global stage was seen by the community here as a way to redress this.
Then Arora’s journey came to a crashing halt, and he had to file for bankruptcy in 2020.
Mukherjee, who was retailing out of stores like London’s Selfridges and Browns, meanwhile, decided to focus on building his brand in India. More international brands, on the other hand, wanted to get closer to the Indian consumers and set up shops in the country. But Indian fashion was not yet ready to go global.
Much of the exposure that Indian designers received, especially in New York, was thanks to Fern Mallis, a former senior vice-president of IMG Fashion who’s been credited for creating the New York Fashion Week. During the early years of fashion week in India, she worked closely with the platform and became Indian fashion’s cheerleader in the US.
To succeed beyond the borders of Bollywood and India, she says, “these designers have to have a passion, a unique point of view, a quality product, and a business partner willing to fund global expansion. The talent in India still impresses me after 22 years when I was first immersed myself in the world of Indian fashion.”
The year of 2021 was all about Indian corporates investing in homegrown labels, giving designers the financial backing needed to go global. And this year, Indian designers have been making all the right moves to move beyond the Indian border.
THE RIGHT MOVE
Mukherjee, who received corporate funding from the Aditya Birla Group last year, is among the top runners for the “global Indian fashion label” crown. He’s been setting the style agenda in the country for well over 10 years. He was the first Indian designer to create flagship stores that were worth visiting for the interiors alone, and the first homegrown designer to create an “it” bag. What’s more, he has broken into the fine jewellery market in India, Dubai and New York, and has collaborated with names like Christian Louboutin and H&M, and retailed out of Bergdorf Goodman. From his modest high neckline blouses of 2010 to today’s plunging necklines, he has redefined Indian bridalwear, becoming the go-to wedding dress designer for India’s top actors.
One of the reasons Mukherjee took a break from showing at international fashion weeks few years ago was that he realized you need to have a strong brand at home before seeking approval from outsiders.
In October, he opened his store in New York’s West Village to showcase the design legacy of India in a global way (read People think I come to work on an elephant, says Sabyasachi).
Mallis observes, “Clearly, Sabyasachi is leading the pack with an ambitious, courageous and gorgeous store in NYC. He is a global fashion label. I also believe he is paving the way for other designers to step up their game.”
Joining him at the top is Anita Dongre, one of the country’s most commercially successful labels. Dongre’s journey began in the 1990s, when she created India’s first real prêt brand AND. She then went on to become the only Indian fashion label to receive investment from the American private equity house, General Atlantic. And when the Princess of Wales, Kate Middleton, made her first trip to India, it was the Anita Dongre label she turned to. She launched her first store in New York before the pandemic, and her second international store, in The Dubai Mall, opens early 2023.
She has taken a more business-led approach, and yet is one of the main voices of conscious fashion in India. Industry analysts consider her to be India’s most profitable fashion house.
You cannot, however, leave out Rahul Mishra from the list. He has been presenting at the Paris Couture Week since January 2020 and his clothes can be found on the covers of international fashion magazines. He’s due to soon launch his own ready-to-wear brand that has the corporate backing of Reliance Brands Ltd.
Mishra has played a vital role in making international fashion editors see the textile heritage of India in a new, more modern light.
Another designer making a name for himself with celebrity stylists is Gaurav Gupta. His fantastical sculptural designs are the stuff red carpet stylists’ dreams are made of. He has dressed Kylie Minogue, Lizzo and Megan Thee Stallion in the past few months, and he’s does all this as an independent label.
Hema Bose of Paris-based Maison Bose, an agency that specializes in VIP brand placements, says, “The Oscar moment we had with Gaurav Gupta and Megan Thee Stallion... it can be equally described to the Halle Berry and Elie Saab moment. One of the biggest pop stars to choose an Indian designer for her Academy Awards debut was a breakthrough for the brand in its positioning.”
She notes that such placements also help challenge international stylists’ perception of Indian fashion. “They feel that Indian designers mostly create intricate and beautiful traditional Indian clothes. The reality, however, is very different,” she says. “Our homegrown designers have expanded creatively on various styles. A constant storytelling, through celebrity dressing, is a way for the industry experts to see the difference.”
She believes Indian labels are now ready to take their place next to French and Italian brands, and shine more on the international red carpet.
J.J. Valaya is the other designer who’s caught the attention of international stylists. He recently collaborated with Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth Carter to create costumes for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. They were worn by actor Angela Bassett, who plays Queen Ramonda. Film and fashion have always had a special relationship, which could be why Mallis believes there is another designer who might make his name in the global arena.
“Manish Malhotra is positioned to take more of the world pie. He has the personality and the passion,” she insists. With Bollywood’s own star on the rise globally, this could be a great calling card for the film industry’s favourite designer, who also has the backing of Reliance.
At a time when the West is opening its eyes to the culture of the Global South, and when diversity is finally becoming a discussion point within the industry, Indian designers are ready to make that international jump. As Mallis says, “This year has brought a lot of attention to India’s designers. It’s a good time for them to seize the moment and branch out.”
This could be, and should be, the decade when we see Indian labels go global.
Dress Sense is a monthly fashion column that takes a look at the clothes that we wear every day and what it means to us.
Sujata Assomull is a journalist, author and mindful fashion advocate.